A Gay-Themed Children's Book in a Country That's Outlawed Gay-Themed Children's Books

As homophobia stirs in Russia, author Daria Wilke spoke with us about her decision to release a young-adult novel that prominently features a homosexual character.
An anti-gay protester clashes with gay rights activists during a Gay Pride event in St. Petersburg on June 29, 2013. (Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters)

Anti-gay activists threw eggs and rocks at gay rights demonstrators in St. Petersburg last month, shouting "Sodomy will not pass." The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church recently called gay marriage "apocalyptic." And in June, the Russian government outlawed discussing LGBT issues with minors by officially prohibiting "homosexual propaganda" and making the distribution of gay-rights material punishable by fines and jail time.

In the midst of Russia's crackdown on gay rights, one Russian author has published a children's book that prominently features a homosexual character and his struggle to find acceptance in the country. jesterscap.jpg

Daria Wilke, the author of the new book, The Jester's Cap, emigrated from Moscow 13 years ago and is now a Russian professor at the University of Vienna in Austria. Her novel centers on a boy named Grisha, a 14-year-old who lives and works in a puppet theater with his family and an older friend, Sam, who is gay.

For the setting, Wilke drew inspiration from her own childhood, which she spent predominantly in the Moscow puppet theater where her parents both worked. There, she would spend evenings doing homework among the props and chatting with its eclectic crew.

There's this saying in Russia, it's left over from Soviet times: "The laws may be harsh, but at least we don't enforce them."

Wilke encountered several gay actors at the theater, and homosexuality, to her, was a normal part of life -- so, it became a part of her book, as well.

At one point in The Jester's Cap, Sam decides to leave Russia for the Netherlands because he finds the homophobia in his home country too difficult to endure. Meanwhile, Grisha realizes he's different from other boys -- more emotional, less macho -- and struggles to find himself while being urged by adults around him to live up to a more traditional idea of manhood.

Wilke said that she didn't intend for the book to become known for discussing homosexuality, but since the anti-gay law passed, that has become its most talked-about aspect -- both in positive and negative ways.

I spoke with Wilke recently about the book and what impact she thinks it might have on a nation that's taken a decidedly anti-gay turn. A translated and edited transcript of our conversation follows.

How did you come up with this plot, specifically?

A writer writes about their life, and life is multifaceted -- it contains many things, including homosexuality. For that reason, I didn't see a need to not write about it.

The puppet theater where this takes place is a sort of safe space for the protagonist -- in the theater, he can be himself. The gay actors there can say they're gay. The book starts with the fact that the protagonist's best friend and mentor, Sam, the most talented actor in the theater, must leave to go to Holland -- it's too hard for him to live in Russia because he's gay.

From there, the main character, Grisha, must decide whether to follow societal stereotypes or to be himself. Other than his parents, he has his granddad, who is quite totalitarian and homophobic. The grandfather is disgusted by Sam. Grisha must decide whether he wants to be free or to follow the stringent societal rules that adults have set for him. It's about the dichotomy of the free world within the theater walls and the less-free one outside of them.

In what way was homosexuality a part of your childhood?

For me growing up, homosexuality was totally normal. No one hid it. It was only among adults that I realized that there were people who thought homosexuality was a problem.

Why did you choose to release the book now?

I wrote it a year and a half ago, and the publisher was weighing when to release it. But when these strange laws were being released -- first the local anti-gay laws in various cities, then the broader one that passed just last month -- eventually the publisher realized that if we didn't release the book now, we might never be able to release it. Because of these laws, in many bookstores, it has an "18+" stamp, even though in my view, I think it's suitable for 12-year-olds.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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